Editorial Comment: New season opens more opportunities

Source: Editorial Comment: New season opens more opportunities | Herald (Top Stories)

Pfumvudza/Conservation Agriculture concept

The surge in agricultural production in the last season will be continuing in the season about to open, with the overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans with farms now coming on board and proven production systems in place.

In the smallholder sector Agritex reports that more than 1,8 million households, almost 80 percent of those who could be eligible, are now registered for the Pfumvudza scheme, as most of those who stood back last year race to come aboard having seen what sort of harvest their neighbours have gathered and no doubt envious of the money they have earned and are now spending.

Since entry into the scheme still relies on the farmer showing commitment, by undergoing training and doing the required land preparation, those whose commitment is just talk will remain outside the scheme. But, encouragingly, Agritex reports that more than 207 000 farmers have now completed land preparations on all five plots, and another more than 600 000 farmers were more than half way through having prepared three or four of their plots and the rest pushing on hard to be ready in time.

The seed and fertiliser inputs are now in stock, with distribution to start soon. This year there is a desire to start planting as early as possible, as soon as enough rain has fallen to ensure germination, with simple bucket irrigation even being recommended to get an early start, possible since the method of conservation farming now practised relies on exceptionally high yields on small plots, rather than sparse planting on larger areas.

So next year there should be even more money floating around rural Zimbabwe as 80 percent of households move out of subsistence agriculture into commercial farming and start making money from their business. That not only uplifts what is easily the largest group of Zimbabweans living in poverty, but also opens a lot more opportunities for the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy.

With that number of families having some money, even if it is not very much, the combined new markets will drive economic growth. Admittedly the other sectors have to ensure they have the right products of the right quality at the right price, but that is again a positive development as manufacturers see small-scale farmers as customers rather than as “them”.

All this will continue to drive real growth in the economy, growth built on production, better harvests and more products bought by those gathering those harvests. This contrasts with so-called growth that vanishes into thin air during the smallest of downturns.

However this surge in farm production will start presenting new opportunities, and could create some problems. The important part of maintaining growth is to have markets. This year’s harvests seem to fill all Zimbabwe’s needs for grain, just.

Obviously, we need some carryover stocks, so a rise in grain production will still find internal markets.

But we need to start thinking, at least from this time next year, just how much grain we should be growing. Export markets might be difficult to find, since our neighbours are also involved in agriculture reform and most of the region is now pushing self-sufficiency.

The extra we grow this season can be marketed internally, although we must ensure our storage is adequate and first class, but we may be approaching our limit in some grains. So farmers will need to diversify as they expand production.

One huge gap in our production remains oil seeds. Harvests are rising fast, but there is a lot of room for growth. A fair number of small-scale farmers tried out soya beans in the last season and gained experience in what is a new crop for many. This season those pioneers will now doubt be pushing their yields and giving a practical example to neighbours trying out the crop for the first time.

The cotton harvest rose significantly in the last season, although payment problems are still being sorted out but with significant progress being made. In any case the new harvests are now being paid for with only past harvests still being bought on terms. This provides a larger quantity of cotton seed for oil processing.

Sunflower is starting to make a return as a standard crop in small-scale farming households. Output had, for some reason fallen, but the market for sunflower seed exists and at least one major manufacturer of cooking oil has put out pure sunflower oil as a premium product. One interesting point with sunflower is that it can be processed and sold in a community, rather than having to undergo industrial processing.

While this year’s harvests made a significant dent in our import bill, the cooking oil processors remain in the top band of currency buyers at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe auctions, so growth in oil seed harvests will find a ready market and, considering the prices now pertaining, can be converted into products that are much easier to export once we pass the self-sufficiency mark.

One point that our agricultural experts need to look at is canola oil, regarded as a moderately premium cooking oil. This comes from rape, the same plant that is grown in every Zimbabwean yard for its leaves.

There are varieties that are grown for seed in other countries and these seeds are the raw material for edible oils.

Some research needs to be done on these oil-seed varieties to find out how they grow in Zimbabwe, and if someone can find or develop a variety that offers good oil seed and decent vegetable leaves, we might have a winner.

Other business initiatives are seeing pilot schemes for orchards and the introduction of other crops. This is important. As our farmers master modern farming methods and mechanisation starts spreading in farming communities, openings will grow for new crops to meet new markets, both internal and external.

We need to continue pressing on with our research, not only to produce better varieties and better farming methods for existing crops, but also be ready and willing to seek our new crops, acclimatise the varieties for Zimbabwean conditions and start adding to our list of things we produce.